Published: July 17th 2012July 17th 2012
Ajumma in the Market
She has worked there since the market opened about 50 years ago, and that dried animal has also been hanging there for as long.
Having lived in Daegu for about 17 months now, I’m finally starting to realize some of the things I’d come to know as ‘Korea’ are actually more ‘Daegu’ things. First, let me give you a quick rundown of Daegu. It’s towards the center of the country, but in the southeast. It’s the fourth-largest city in Korea, after Seoul, Busan, and Incheon (near Seoul), but keep in mind that Seoul and Incheon together hold half of South Koreans. Daegu is in a valley that is known for having hot, humid summers and cold winters.
So let me begin by talking about one consequence of Daegu’s geographical location—the fact that historically residents were a bit cut off from the outside. I’ve studied Korean since before I came to Korea, and I still have difficulty understanding teachers talking in the cafeteria, people on subways, etc. I’ve become more and more frustrated, but I finally learned that residents of Daegu and surrounding areas have a special dialect. Although I’d been learning Korean from Daegu-ites, they were still teaching me standard Korean that’s spoken more in Seoul. The last couple of times I have traveled to Gangwon province, I’ve been really happy because I could
New in Daegu
Hyundai Department Store
understand way more of what Koreans were saying. They spoke slowly and, to me, more clearly.
Apparently, Daegu and other southern areas have an accent that comes off as sounding kind of hickish to people from Seoul. They may also use different words or phrase things differently than the standard, Seoul dialect of Korean. Also—and I have heard this from Korean friends, not because I can understand it—people in Daegu and further south tend to use a more informal way of speaking, even to strangers. It comes off as rude to those from Seoul, but for them it’s the natural and friendlier way of speaking. A Korean friend tells us he always tries to drop his Daegu dialect when he’s in a different place.
Another thing that may or may not be a geographical consequence is Daegu’s reputation as conservative. I’ve heard this is true politically, culturally (expectations about marriage, etc.), and fashion-wise. Although generally in Korea, showing cleavage is frowned upon (but super-short bottoms are alright), Daegu seems to be less okay than other places with any bit of cleavage. Actually, even showing your shoulders can attract stares. I once wore a sleeveless top
which revealed nothing, and some Korean friends commented on my outfit. Having visited Seoul and Busan (a Southern coastal city) a few times each, I’ve noticed both Koreans and foreigners wearing tops that would not go over well in Daegu.
Next up: ajummas. Ajumma (ah-joom-ma) is the Korean word for older woman. But I can’t imagine calling my own grandmother or aunt an ajumma, because my perception of ajumma is so tied to the ones I’ve encountered in Daegu. The ajumma that I know from Daegu is super-powerful. Many of these women lived through the Korean War, the difficult years afterwards, and have now experienced the rapidly industrialized, modernized Korean culture.
You can see the power of the ajumma especially clearly when waiting for the bus or subway, when suddenly a blur jostles past you, possibly knocking you a yard to the side. Or, if you’re lucky, they push you forward onto the subway or bus, in the hopes that they’ll somehow be able to squeeze past you to obtain a seat and a place for their package (probably of dried squid or maybe kimchi), neatly wrapped in fabric. It’s also a bit of a novelty to spot
groups of ajummas, who board the subways after a long day of hiking, outfitted in hiking boots, brightly colored hiking outfits, hiking backpacks, and visors, and smelling of kimchi and soju. Regardless of where in the subway car they each obtain seats, they may make conversation, reminiscing about the day’s fun. In public they can try one’s patience, but in one-on-one interactions, they can melt your heart. They are the most likely to try to get you a seat on the subway once they’ve obtained their own. On bus journeys, they often share apple, orange, or rice cakes with their seat partners. If you get an ajumma to like you, she will do everything in her power to help you. All of these things are what I’ve learned of ajummas in Daegu, but in recent visits to other places, the ajummas seem much tamer and more like normal people, rather than a super-species.
My last cultural tidbit is actually related to the foreigners (non-Koreans) in Daegu. If one visits downtown Daegu on a weekend evening, the ratio of Koreans to obvious non-Koreans is maybe 2:1, which is much higher than the actual ratio. It’s pretty easy to pick out
Kimchi pancakes are delicious!
the non-Koreans, and it’s also generally easy to divide them into (admittedly overly simplistic) categories: English teachers, US military and possibly their families (usually the only time you’ll see non-Asian children), and Southeast Asian factory workers (many exist, but only a few come downtown). Although there are US bases in many places in Korea, there are three or four concentrated near Daegu.
Unfortunately, the US military has a bit of a bad reputation in South Korea. In the past, some members of the US military committed crimes in Korea, and these were well publicized in the Korean press. So, generally, I kind of wince when I see them walking around downtown at night; it seems that all Koreans see of them is when they’re off base and getting drunk. (English teachers are also unfortunately well-represented at night, but at least we usually live in Korean neighborhoods and interact with Koreans on a daily basis.) When in other cities at night, I usually have a sense that something’s different, and realize there aren’t US military men strolling around. Anyways, although I have my reservations, the Fourth of July made me appreciate their presence a bit. A base in Daegu set
Alcohol made from rice, also delicious!
off fireworks, and I went to watch from a bit up a nearby mountain. I was glad to feel like it was really the Fourth, but at the same time it made me homesick.
I hope this post helps you get a sense of some of the special things about Daegu. I'm so used to Korean life that I sometimes have to really think about life in the US to pick out the differences. I also hope this didn’t come off as negative; I think Daegu is a great place to live, even if sometimes things get on my nerves. Oh, btw the pictures are just general ones from around Daegu and also from a trip to Seoul to see Wicked. The next post will be about our rafting adventure last weekend!
There are more photos below